Stepping off the flight deck at Ronaldsway airport in the Isle of Man will always be one of the most comforting and refreshing experiences for a Manxman. It always sparks a memory of an active childhood filled with the outdoors, friendships and a “back yourself” sporting culture. The “can do” trait built on Manx shores could only benefit a young aspiring rugby player who had decided to up the ante and move to the Mecca of his sport and a bigger playground; New Zealand. Within 6 months I had played against the All Blacks Under 20s, scored tries with Fijian ex-internationals and settled into another island culture underpinned with an active lifestyle.
Years later, three of which I enjoyed at university and 18 months of which were spent playing professionally in NZ, I owe many of my successes not to the pacific islands but to the island from where I was born. The key to successfully entering any new environment is to find common ground on which to build strong relationships, to be open to new ideas and give everything a go. You have to get involved and thankfully being not just a rugby player allowed for this. A Manx childhood meant I was also a footballer, mountaineer, cyclist, sailor and, of course, could hold my own on any topic involving motorbikes! Off the pitch integration became easy, as I have often found that a shared love and appreciation of sport compliments the community surrounding it and this was certainly the case in Northland, New Zealand. The Kiwis excel at making the most of their unique geography and what they have available to them. They have made the All Blacks a globally recognised brand, heavily geared themselves towards tourism, become leaders in land cultivation and they back a small business culture. They have matched an extreme landscape with extreme sports and boast a unquestionable quality of life for residents. Naturally I began to draw parallels and ponder whether our equally passionate community was making the most of such a unique setting in the Irish Sea?
To my surprise however returning home the latest time, was more refreshing. It is clear that local produce/provenance is being utilized more than ever before in wonderful restaurants and young innovative businesses are becoming vibrant hubs, central to the community. Furthermore, access to governmental grants for everything from new local food and drink business to disrupting tech companies are incentivising diverse clusters of dynamic high-skilled workers seeking a more rounded work-life balance to consider the island as their home. These pockets of young (and occasionally not so young) entrepreneurial clusters are challenging well established local and international business with a set of values that are being embraced by an excited and supportive island. In this regard, I feel I have come home to a refreshing mix of nostalgic familiarity but also the beginnings of an innovative and modern ‘scene’.
To my pleasure the knock on effect within community sport is obvious too. Big events such as the Parish Walk (85 miles in 24 hours!!), Tough Mann and Cyclefest are gaining momentum and the access to sailing and mountain biking has never been better! The outstanding coverage of the TT has a global reach, as do some of our home-grown sportsmen and women. Proof is in the pudding; Team Isle of Man topped the medal table at the 2017 Island Games with 101 medals, 36 of which were gold! Like New Zealand we massively punch above our weight within the sporting world. I wonder do we shout about it enough, perhaps room to become our own specialist-sporting mecca in our own right?
For me however, the biggest tell will always be what influenced my principles and made me who I am today. Returning home to Douglas RUFC has been nothing less than fantastic. A club now backed by passionate sponsors, strong leadership and a full time professional coach has set its sights high for the future. Promotion into the North West 1 league means that you can now play a high level of rugby and push on with a career in some exciting industries on the island. As a club we want to attract new dynamic sportsmen to our home who can raise our game again and make the most of a vibrant and prosperous community. Our club itself is not only full of the great characters who love the game but also consists of dedicated players who have taken the team on to the next level and are striving to go further. Having played in many teams across the globe I am still astounded by the current diversity within my home club; teachers, entrepreneurs, personal trainers, estate agents, students and accountants we also have many seeking to make their fortune within the islands burgeoning tech and e-gaming sectors and several working in the islands more traditional financial sectors. I look around the changing room and see the potent mix for a good side; experience and grit. Glyn Hoosen-Owen, spent most of his 20s playing professionally in Hong Kong, Portugal, New Zealand, and is sat next to local Max Singer, 2016 world powerlifting champion and a incredibly effective carrier on the pitch and within the e-gaming sector. Mark ‘Sharky’ Robinson (who just happens to be rugby legend and ex all black) is giving the youngsters a master class in passing whilst Carl Murray (kiwi born, Portuguese 7s captain and head coach) is taking commonwealth boxer turn rugby player and now teacher Dom Winrow through this years lineout structure. This, I think, is a small snapshot of a changing room and of an island full of determination and ability.
To my delight the Isle of Man recently became a Developing Player Programme (DPP) venue working directly with Sale Sharks, thus giving young talent the opportunity to be coached and play to the best of their ability both on and off island. It will also give this new generation of sportsman the chance to realise that although the bar can be raised in the UK, competing on an international stage is very much achievable. In actually fact, coming form a unique training environment such as the Isle of Man could be beneficial.
All of this additional exposure is making the island even more attractive to active families with aspiring players and we at the club see it as part of our duty to support new players, and their families when moving here - be that finding work, a new home or even just making new friends. The work to attract new sportsman to our shores continues and when we speak of thriving local talent and a great work / life balance it really is a viable option. Looking at the big picture, we don’t have an All Blacks team to market, but we do have a beautiful and unique environment geared towards the tech industry and a quality regulated financial sector to support it. Perhaps 2018 is the time to shout about it.